How can I smell like my dog?
June 23, 2009 3:37 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to smell like my dog?

I once read an article (referenced here) about how humans can follow a scent trail through a meadow if down on their hands and knees with nose to the ground, much the same way dogs can. In fact, I seem to remember reading that with some practice, the people involved in the experiment became so skillful that their speed at following the scent trail was limited only by how fast they could crawl.

When I come home from being out, my curious dog doesn’t just smell me from across the room. Instead he places his nostrils right on my hands and clothing. I have noticed that many, many household items have a very distinctive odor if I put my nose very close to them. I now feel that I have been missing out on a major sensory experience because humans don't generally smell things (except laundry) by touching them directly to our noses.

My question is this: while I know my dog has a better sense of smell than I do, how much of this is related to real physiological differences, and how much can I make up for by using new methods (i.e. putting my nose close to things, actively trying to remember smells, etc.)? What other tips and tricks do you have for being more scent-conscious?
posted by tr0ubley to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
While the human brain is dominated by a large visual cortex, the dog brain is dominated by an olfactory cortex.[28] The olfactory bulb in dogs is roughly forty times bigger than the olfactory bulb in humans, relative to total brain size, with 125 to 220 million smell-sensitive receptors.[28] The bloodhound exceeds this standard with nearly 300 million receptors.[28] Dogs can discriminate odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans can.[36] The wet nose is essential for determining the direction of the air current containing the smell. Cold receptors in the skin are sensitive to the cooling of the skin by evaporation of the moisture by air currents.[37]

Wikipedia. So physiology is the big one. Oddly, I read this (haha try that DOG!) like two days ago so it was fresh in my mind.
posted by jeb at 3:45 PM on June 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Richard Feynman describes this experiment in "Surely You're Joking...". He found he was able to tell which person had handled which book by sniffing hands and then the books, if I recall the anecdote right.
posted by jet_silver at 3:50 PM on June 23, 2009

Keeping the scent "noise" in your environment down by eschewing perfumed detergent, room fresheners, secondhand smoke, etc. ought to give you room to be more observant.

Nutrition is also important: omega three fatty acids have been shown to affect olfactory neuronal sensitivity.
posted by aquafortis at 3:59 PM on June 23, 2009

Your dog isn't just getting up close and personal for scent's sake. There are a whole host of behaviors related to space and touch being reflected here.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:05 PM on June 23, 2009

Want to smell like your dog? Simply roll in poop ...
(sorry, had to be said)

More seriously, while Bonzo's got a beak a billion times better than yours, it really helps if you practice; stick your nose up against stuff and really work on identifying smells. You'll discover a whole new olfactory landscape (plus garner a bunch of really strange looks, and discover things that will make you sneeze and sneeze and sneeze like never before).
posted by scruss at 4:11 PM on June 23, 2009

The sensory surface in a German Shepherd's snout is the size of a man's handkerchief, kind of crumpled up to fit in a smaller space. The equivalent sensory surface in a human is the size of two postage stamps.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:38 PM on June 23, 2009

It is possible to improve your sense of smell, but the dog is better equipped; it has 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, compared to your 5 million, according to this page. As for the Feynman trick, it is an old parlor trick I have seen described elsewhere; when you give someone the book to handle, choose someone with a really strong cologne on.
posted by TedW at 5:46 PM on June 23, 2009

I don't disbelieve this sort of thing. Mostly because I have an unusually strong sense of smell, and can smell all sorts of things--like that most men have a musty-smelling spot on the backs of their heads. Trouble is, when I've told people about this, and they've sniffed some available heads, only about half could pick up on it at all. So I suspect that genetics has something to do with it (as well as things like being a smoker--I don't, and never have).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:49 PM on June 23, 2009

So I've got significant experience training scenting dogs. I've never done bomb/drug, but I've done human (Airscent and tracking) as well as cadaver.

FWIW the standard we trained to is a thumbnail, 3 inches down, in an acre, in 15 minutes.

If you want to learn more about dog scenting, you need to find a copy of the now (I believe out of print) Scent and the Scenting Dog. It covers the actual physiology of the canine as well as the science of what they're sniffing. (I.e. they smell the bacteria eating the decaying skin rafts as they fall off your body, NOT you... (at least tracking dogs anyway)) They're really very remarkable.

Really, in about a weekends work, we can make your dog find you about half a mile away with about an hour-old track.

The folds of a dogs muzzle (think bloodhound) are developed to hold scent in the nasal area, the way they bring air across the olfactory nerves is different, and the general way they perceive scent is just entirely different. Then you look at sight hounds versus scent hounds and the differences totally add up.

I mean, for example, my border collie was an air-scenter. Meaning that she found all living humans w/i the search grid, she did not key on a scent article. It's used when you don't have a specific point of last origin AND the search area isn't too contaminated. Or...when you've got hundreds of acres to cover fast. Anyway, as she searched for the scent cone, she'd often stand on her hind legs, spinning in circles, trying to find the human scent as it wafted from wherever.

My golden and my redbone, on the other hand, start at a trailhead, use a scent article, and operate nose-to-the-ground, on-lead, lapping the air at ground level to shovel scent into their mouths and noses.

I digress. Maybe I should make that my first FPP.
posted by TomMelee at 6:10 PM on June 23, 2009 [18 favorites]

In the Feynman trick mentioned above, he didn't use the cologne bit (which really is just a trick). As he described it, smells are actually very noticable and easily distinguishable once you put your nose up to the objects in question. The only 'trick' is not minding if other people think you're weird for smelling things.
posted by echo target at 6:13 PM on June 23, 2009

how much of this is related to real physiological differences?

Almost all of it, in my opinion. I think to dogs, some scents are almost like colored smoke grenades are to us.

I can put my girl in a stay, let her sniff a small piece of ham, then walk around the corner, out of her sight, stroll around a large multi-acre field with wild grass, shrubs, deer poop, field mice, etc., drop the ham in a random spot in the field, go back to her, and tell her to find it. She will gallup - no, sprint - right to the ham.

I guess she could be a tracker if tracking consisted of "Go find this and eat it". Bad trainer!!

Maybe I should make that my first FPP.

That would be very cool, TomMelee, please do.
posted by txvtchick at 7:51 PM on June 23, 2009

Txvtchick, fwiw, she's tracking you, not the ham. ;-) The ham is the reward at the end.
posted by TomMelee at 7:58 PM on June 23, 2009

Maybe I should make that my first FPP.

yes, please
posted by jammy at 5:12 AM on June 24, 2009

Txvtchick, fwiw, she's tracking you, not the ham. ;-) The ham is the reward at the end.

That makes me feel better! She does, on occasion, come back to me afterward so at worst it's a quick mid-track snack. :-)
posted by txvtchick at 6:41 PM on June 24, 2009

...they smell the bacteria eating the decaying skin rafts as they fall off your body, NOT you...

I seem to recall that dogs track people (and other animals) by smelling the proteins of their major histocompatibility complex. That seems more suited to tracking individuals than relying on bacteria. On the other hand, you have actual expertise in the subject (unlike me), so feel free to tell me I'm full of nonsense.
posted by TedW at 7:25 PM on June 24, 2009

TomMelees's FPP on the blue.
posted by txvtchick at 7:57 PM on June 24, 2009

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